Robert Bunter: Ahem. I think there are really a lot of important things to be said about "Listen To What The Man Said," the primal crucial track on Venus And Mars. The story of Paul McCartney is the story of a guy who could write the greatest songs in human history ("Penny Lane," "You Won't See Me," "Maybe I'm Amazed"), but his real pleasure was writing catchy throwaways that played to his natural strengths in the realms of melody and personal charm ("C Moon," "When I'm 64"). It was a source of real struggle for him. The intense, committed fans were wracked with desperate thirst for more life-sustaining liquid from the same deep, profound well from whence came "You Never Give Me Your Money," but the keeper of the keys to the bucket was just as happy doling out paper cups of brightly-colored Kool-Aid like "All Together Now" or "Your Mother Should Know" to the ignorant slack-jawed masses. For Paul, it was not about providing the deepest artistic fulfillment to the most discerning of die-hards but reaching the widest possible audience and making them smile as much as possible. At times Paul seemed to struggle with the burden of being the goose that laid the golden eggs and strive for works of elevated merit, but then he might be just as likely to turn around and unleash a defiant piece of fluff like "Silly Love Songs" or "Her Majesty." You can see where I'm going with this, right? The final mind-bending truth is that Paul's throwaway fluff was in fact the High Art all along. His true medium was AM radio and magazine clippings, not 180-gram sealed audiophile deep-groove vinyl artifacts and gilded oil paintings. "Yesterday" and "Hey Jude" were the real fluff, the second-rate album filler. The Truth was hidden in plain sight on tracks like "All My Loving" and "Listen To What The Man Said" all along.
Richard Furnstein: Paul McCartney fully embraced the stadium pop leanings of Wings on the Venus And Mars album. Sure, there were sugary pop moments all over the two previous Wings albums (Band On The Run and Red Rose Speedway) and on the overblown "Live and Let Die" single, but they were tempered by the low-key experimentation of the fledgling band. Even the easy listening pop of "My Love" seemed somewhat lo-fi and weedy rather than glossy and smooth. Venus and Mars found Paul McCartney in full-on mega pop monster mode (look no further than the opening number "Venus and Mars/Rock Show," a "Band On The Run" style suite that paid tribute to the stoned masses who would come out to see Wings in American stadiums). "Listen To What The Man Said" is the only pop hit on Venus And Mars, and it was strong enough to provide all the support that was needed for the Wings Over The World mega-tour. Wings had become the well-tuned/profitable/muscularly musical machine that The Beatles never were.
Robert Bunter: John Lennon did more than his share of singing about how the world needed more peace, love and understanding, but it was McCartney who actually delivered the goods. Lennon's latter-day Beatles and solo output ranged from turgid to terrifying, with stops in-between for political harangues and trite sloganeering. Albums like Plastic Ono Band invite the listener to curl up in a fetal ball under a set of headphones and painfully absorb the heavy vibes. Nightmares, tears and perhaps, by the end, redemption. But meanwhile, if you were to just take off those dusty, stinky headphones and look out the window of your darkened teenage bedroom, you might see that the whole rest of the family is outside near the swimming pool, laughing and belly-flopping while a platter of freshly-grilled hamburgers and fruit punch sits expectantly in the July sunshine. And what's on the AM radio? I'll give you one guess: it's Paul McCartney singing "Listen To What The Man Said." Listen to that clarinet happily tooting along! Lennon's tortured, epic Statements bemoaned the walls that separate us and the lack of human communication, but Paul was content to provide the soundtrack to our lives and brighten up the air with a tune so sweet it might make your teeth fall out.
Here is one anonymous listener in a comment posted under the "Listen To What The Man Said" YouTube video clip: "Ten seconds into the song tears flowed down my face, hurting/longing for the days of this songs era, and the flood of happy childhood memories the song suddenly brought to me. I would do anything to go back to that time for just a little while." Here is another: "1975 - 7 yrs old, back seat of Mom's Plymouth Valiant, headed to the beach. God, I miss those days..." And another: "This song reminds me of Summer picnics by Lake Michigan...yes, the 1970's was a great era in music!" One more: "When this song came out in 1975, My girlfriend and I loved to sing this song together in the car at the top of our lungs. We would then laugh until our sides hurt." Check the page yourself - there are dozens of them, each more heartbreaking than the last. Paul touched the hearts of a generation and brought real love and happiness into the world at a level that scary John, sanctimonious George and drunken clown Ringo could only dream of.
Don’t read too much into it, mate, it’s just a pleasant boogie that is guaranteed to shoot straight up to the top of the charts. You’re getting into a weird area.
Richard Furnstein: For all of their hair and blood, Lennon's most grotesque demonstrations couldn't match the brutal reality portrayed in this happy-go-lucky pop song. The scene is set early: "Soldier boy kisses girl, leaves behind a tragic world." It's a fun image: horny, stupid kids having drunk fun during liberty. However, we can interpret this deceptively simple lyric two different ways. One interpretation is the act of physical love gives the man and woman a temporary escape from the horrors of war and tedium of life. The other interpretation is that the tragic world is the result of their regrettable romantic encounter. That innocent kiss lead to the conception of new life. Unfortunately, human beings are inherently evil, resulting in a lifetime of damage, wreckage, and misery. I'm inclined to take the latter interpretation of this key lyric. Indeed, the intent of that line would be the first question that I would ask Sir Paul if I ever had the chance to meet him.Remember that The Beatles were a product of post-war Europe, much like the fine-tuned pop machine of Wings was fully realized following the Vietnam War. Paul certainly knows how to bring us into his tale of passion and tragedy.
Paul lets a little light into the house with the next line. The soldier is ambivalent to the tragedy surrounding his love: "But he won't mind. He's in love and he says love is fine." It's a classic call back to the monosyllabic word play of early Beatles, including the jumbled use of the word "love" which recalls classics such as "Things We Said Today." Paul seems to be saying that we're already stuck in this world, taking our slow steps towards death. We may as well make the most of our time here. Love is a simple fix, but it will still do the trick.
Robert Bunter: That’s all as valid an interpretation as any, but I think this is one of those cases where Paul is using the lyrics as a simple decorative vehicle for his intoxicating melody, performance and production. He did the same thing on “Jet,” “C Moon,” “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey,” “Hello Goodbye,” “Come And Get It” and so many others. To quote my beloved Nicholas Schaffner, “[Paul’s solo work] brings to mind a chocolate egg – tasty, if just this side of sickly sweet, but it crumbles when you try to sink your teeth in.” The soldier boy, “the people,” “the Man” – these are all just syllables for Paul to croon while those tasty bongos, lovely Linda harmonies, funky clavinet and sprightly Dixieland clarinets do their thing. “Don’t read too much into it, mate, it’s just a pleasant boogie that is guaranteed to shoot straight up to the top of the charts. You’re getting into a weird area.” But here’s the twist: Paul’s hasty lyrical sketches may have unwittingly pulled back the curtain on Paul’s true nature far more than any of John’s nude confessionals or childhood exorcisms. Who is the titular “man”? Maybe he is Paul himself, beholding his own reflection in an infinitely-regressive funhouse mirror. What did the man say, Paul? Tell us. We are you.
Richard Furnstein: Paul is certainly no stranger to phonetic scoot babbles--especially during some of the feel good/free and easy Wings period. Think of his wordless exultation that concludes "Powercut" from the Red Rose Speedway album. I think there is more to the story here. You are right that the secret lies with uncovering the mysterious "man" in the title. I think there are a few intriguing possibilities in Advanced Man Theory:
- Paul McCartney-Wings was Paul's show: a fully realized but necessarily loose outfit that Paul could manipulate to knock out some loose rock ("Soily") or mechanized pop sheen ("With A Little Luck"). Remember back to a haggard George battling Paul in the Let It Be movie about doubling a rote bass guitar line. George was right to fight back on the condescending Paul ("I'm only trying to help you."), and certainly used this moment to help realize the majesty of All Things Must Pass. Now Paul was reminding the record buying public that he was still the one to "listen to." His pop vision was true, steady, and--most importantly--financially sound.
- John Lennon-It's easy to imagine a dialogue between Lennon and McCartney during their solo years. The world was hoping that these long lost brothers would be drawn back together; following a string of clues and gentle winks in their assorted solo catalogs. This theory is garbage, however. Paul was singing about Linda or marijuana-induced wordplay. John was singing about himself or Yoko. It's sad, really.
- Brian Epstein-Paul was no stranger to looking back with love. The death of Brian Epstein signified the end of the brotherhood of The Beatles so it is easy to view him as this symbol of creative control and focus. There never was a "Man" for The Beatles. Politicians and police officers had little impact on the sheltered lives of geniuses and the gurus were quickly exposed and discarded. Brian remains as the only real position of authority who could advise these egomaniacs.
- The Saxophone-My favorite theory. The Man is nothing more than the dancing, exuberant specter of the saxophone that runs throughout the song. The saxophone represents the loose and free sway of music on human beings. Paul is simply requesting that his listeners sit back and give in to the dancing spirit of this wild and gentle instrument as it scales the trees, giggles on the mantle, and peeks at us through an open window.
Richard Furnstein: You are right, although he just did some stage work with Lennon. In a way, Tom Scott was the life glue that held this disgraced band of brothers together through the rocky (and rocking) 1970s. His expert gut control and breath force rocketed him to the top of the Los Angeles session men: a scene that the solo Beatles would rely on to anchor their temperamental solo recordings. Long gone were the glory days of "Little Child" and other carefree rockers. The only wind blowing in that time was from Lennon's primitive mouth harp. Friends supported friends, not a L.A. coke-twonker in sight.
Robert Bunter: Well that was an exhaustive analysis.